Lo­cal needs

City, county must speak with a uni­fied voice about hur­ri­cane re­cov­ery.

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK -

The flood­wa­ters had barely re­ceded and our jean cuffs were still damp as na­tional at­ten­tion shifted to Hur­ri­cane Irma in Florida and Hur­ri­cane Maria in Puerto Rico. Now New Or­leans is on alert as Trop­i­cal Storm Nate ap­proaches the Gulf Coast.

And yet, as ev­ery­one try­ing to re­build lives in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey knows, our work here in the Hous­ton area has barely be­gun.

Fed­eral and state gov­ern­ments have im­por­tant roles to play in the re­cov­ery ef­fort. We have pre­vi­ously out­lined post­storm agen­das for na­tional politi­cians and elected lead­ers in Austin. But in the end, city and county of­fi­cials bear the ul­ti­mate re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Hous­ton is a city renowned for leap­ing to challenges, to meet­ing the fu­ture on its own terms and to get­ting hard jobs done right. Here are a few of the tasks at hand.

1. Build lo­cal unity

Hous­ton and Har­ris County must share a sin­gle vi­sion and speak in a uni­fied voice about flood preven­tion needs. State and fed­eral lead­ers will soon start writ­ing ma­jor re­cov­ery bills, and we will be able to draw down more if we’re all pulling in the same di­rec­tion.

“This is a ne­go­ti­a­tion,” for­mer Shell CEO Marvin Odum, whom Mayor Sylvester Turner picked to lead re­cov­ery ef­forts, told the editorial board. Ne­go­ti­a­tions don’t work if lo­cal of­fi­cials con­tra­dict or un­der­cut each other. Ef­forts should fo­cus on the big three in­fra­struc­ture projects — a third reser­voir, bayou im­prove­ments and coastal storm surge pro­tec­tion. Con­sen­sus will also be needed on a new re­gional flood-con­trol dis­trict and the fu­ture of the un­in­cor­po­rated county.

Col­lec­tive buy-in will also make it eas­ier to pre­vent par­ti­san bick­er­ing and re­buff any re­luc­tant de­vel­op­ers and other in­ter­est groups that want to main­tain a flood-prone sta­tus quo.

2. Es­tab­lish new rev­enue sources

Har­ris County Judge Ed Em­mett is the first to say he hates prop­erty taxes, but that’s the lousy fund­ing source our state gov­ern­ment has given him. Our state lead­er­ship needs to cast aside its war on lo­cal con­trol to help city and county gov­ern­ments find ef­fec­tive ways to pay for what they need in re­sponse to this dis­as­ter. Un­til then, the city and county should not be re­luc­tant to raise rev­enue on their own. We may need higher prop­erty taxes to pay for county flood preven­tion work. We clearly need to aban­don Hous­ton’s rev­enue cap. What­ever ef­forts lo­cal gov­ern­ments un­der­take to pro­tect the pub­lic from fu­ture floods will cost money, and they will need new sources of cash.

3. Im­prove reg­u­la­tions

Build­ing codes must re­flect a new nor­mal in which 500-year floods have be­come an an­nual men­ace. Higher foun­da­tions, pier and beam con­struc­tion, stricter runoff mit­i­ga­tion and strin­gent in­spec­tions for roofs and win­dows all have to be part of this change. Bagby Street serves as an model of wa­ter-ab­sorbent road con­struc­tion that should be adopted across the re­gion.

Both Em­mett and Turner have spo­ken about the need for bet­ter rules, and they can back those words with ac­tion by en­sur­ing that county and city build­ings set an ex­am­ple for sus­tain­able and re­silient de­vel­op­ment, and this in­cludes down­town court­house fa­cil­i­ties.

Lo­cal lead­ers must first fol­low their own reg­u­la­tions, too. Hous­ton was caught spend­ing de­vel­oper fees in­tended for new green space on park ameni­ties in 2013. Har­ris County is guilty of a sim­i­lar sin with funds in­tended for wa­ter de­ten­tion, Jim Black­burn, co-di­rec­tor of the SSPEED Cen­ter at Rice Univer­sity, told the editorial board.

4. Go af­ter pol­luters and other bad ac­tors

The Har­ris County dis­trict at­tor­ney and county at­tor­ney can help the re­build­ing ef­fort by tar­get­ing the com­pa­nies and in­dus­trial sites re­spon­si­ble for the dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals and waste that Har­vey’s flood­wa­ters spread through­out our neigh­bor­hoods. Home­own­ers and other tax­pay­ers shouldn’t be stuck with the bill for clean­ing up some­one else’s pol­lu­tion.

Crim­i­nal and civil law en­force­ment also needs to pro­tect peo­ple from be­ing ex­ploited in the midst of dis­as­ter, whether from de­ceit­ful re­pair com­pa­nies, mis­lead­ing char­i­ties or any­one hop­ing to take ad­van­tage of peo­ple in a mo­ment of de­spair.

This in­cludes scru­tiny of po­lit­i­cally con­nected con­trac­tors scheming to get rich off pub­lic re­build­ing funds.

5. Equip and train the Hous­ton Fire Depart­ment for flood res­cues

Hous­ton to­day suf­fers more ma­jor floods than ma­jor fires. But Hur­ri­cane Har­vey once again ex­posed the short­com­ings of the Hous­ton Fire Depart­ment’s prepa­ra­tions for city­wide flood­ing. HFD’s boat fleet hasn’t ex­panded sig­nif­i­cantly since Hur­ri­cane Rita hit the Texas coast in 2005, even though the city’s pop­u­la­tion has grown by more than 200,000 res­i­dents. It’s abun­dantly clear the city doesn’t have enough boats to de­ploy dur­ing floods and the fire depart­ment still has no swift-wa­ter res­cue strike team. Hous­ton fire chiefs have asked for more fund­ing for flood train­ing and equip­ment, but their re­quests have been re­jected by elected lead­ers. HFD’s short­com­ings dur­ing floods doesn’t start at neigh­bor­hood fire sta­tions, it starts at City Hall. Mayor Turner and City Coun­cil’s Pub­lic Safety and Home­land Se­cu­rity Com­mit­tee must un­der­take a thor­ough re­view of what equip­ment and train­ing our fire depart­ment needs to ad­e­quately re­spond to flood­ing events. Be­yond that, we re­new our call for a blue-rib­bon com­mis­sion to study how the myr­iad pub­lic safety ser­vices now pro­vided by the HFD should be de­liv­ered in the 21st cen­tury.

6. Cre­ate a Lone Star Navy

When tele­vi­sion cov­er­age of the Tax Day flood showed chil­dren float­ing out of apart­ments in re­frig­er­a­tors, an ar­mada of vol­un­teers brought their boats to the res­cue. Hur­ri­cane Har­vey once again proved how pri­vate boat own­ers can save lives. Our neigh­bors in Louisiana who proudly called them­selves the Ca­jun Navy not only came to our res­cue in our hour of need, they also pro­vided us with an out­stand­ing ex­am­ple we should fol­low. Emer­gency man­age­ment of­fi­cials need to or­ga­nize our own lo­cal navy, en­cour­ag­ing civil­ian boaters to reg­is­ter for dis­as­ter duty so that their res­cue ef­forts can be de­ployed to max­i­mum ef­fect dur­ing floods.

7. Trans­form buy­outs into green space

Buy­outs will be in­evitable for hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of homes in flood zones. Golf cour­ses will hope­fully be re­pur­posed for flood con­trol. But what hap­pens next re­mains un­cer­tain. Lo­cal lead­ers need to start work­ing on some­thing re­sem­bling the Bayou Green­ways 2020 plan to turn these ar­eas into parks. Sus­tain­able fund­ing for up­keep will be key if we want these fu­ture green spa­ces to serve as pub­lic ameni­ties rather than fenced-off mud holes. Buf­falo Bayou Park re­mains a model for do­ing this right. Sprawl­ing and in­ac­ces­si­ble de­ten­tion ponds — such as those at Loop 610 and Brays Bayou — should be avoided.

8. Im­ple­ment bet­ter flood alert tech­nol­ogy

In an era when driv­ers can mon­i­tor traf­fic jams on their smart phones, they also should have the abil­ity to check whether flood prone roads and free­ways are un­der­wa­ter. Hous­ton TranS­tar main­tains a net­work of tele­vi­sion cam­eras the pub­lic can ac­cess via its web­site, which also pro­vides some lim­ited in­for­ma­tion on high wa­ter spots. But Har­ris County needs a net­work of cam­eras and other sen­sors fo­cused on key streets and in­ter­sec­tions with a his­tory of flood­ing. Driv­ers should be able to log on and check flood con­di­tions on road­ways be­fore they leave home and get trapped on del­uged streets.

9. En­sure eco­nomic re­silience at a per­sonal level

Nat­u­ral dis­as­ters like Har­vey de­stroy more than homes and cars — they de­stroy fam­i­lies’ eco­nomic sta­tions. Lo­cal gov­ern­ments can­not be st­ingy with re­sources needed to keep peo­ple fi­nan­cially afloat. City Hall took the right step last week by al­lo­cat­ing fund­ing for af­ford­able hous­ing, but Hous­ton has a poor track record of spend­ing ef­fec­tively. Now is the time to get it right.

Apart­ment prices are ris­ing at a mo­ment when renters can least af­ford it. The mayor should ask the gov­er­nor to de­clare an emer­gency and al­low tem­po­rary rent con­trol.

The city and county should also serve as co­or­di­na­tors for lo­cal char­ity to en­sure that the pri­vate sec­tor doesn’t over­look any op­por­tu­ni­ties to help or waste re­sources through du­pli­ca­tion.

10. Build for Hous­ton’s eco­nomic fu­ture

We not only need to think big, we need to think big pic­ture. Af­ter the Galve­ston hur­ri­cane of 1900, Hous­ton city lead­ers im­me­di­ately saw an eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity and ex­pe­dited the dredg­ing of a ship chan­nel. As a re­sult, Hous­ton boomed and Galve­ston with­ered. At a time when we’re re­build­ing in the wake of a dis­as­ter — and as new bat­tery tech­nol­ogy threat­ens to make gaso­line-powered automobiles ob­so­lete — we should also think about what in­dus­tries our oil and gas based city must at­tract to en­sure its eco­nomic strength in the 21st cen­tury.

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